Facing mounting pressure from Beijing and the pro-establishment camp to conduct mandatory coronavirus testing, Hong Kong ministers visited Shenzhen at the invitation of counterparts to explain why they would not do so, as 63 new infections were confirmed.
Even as the team completed its visit on Tuesday, the Hong Kong Coalition led by Tam Yiu-chung, the city’s sole delegate to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the country’s top legislative body, made public an appeal he sent to Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to consider adopting more mandatory measures to achieve zero infections.
These included a partial lockdown, mass screening and use of the “Leave Home Safe” Covid-19 risk exposure app.
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Tam also revealed in the letter to Lam, dated December 10, that his alliance had written to Beijing’s liaison office earlier this month and secured the mainland’s pledge to reserve vaccines for Hong Kong.
In the letter, Tam said: “The coalition supports the government to require high-risk groups to take mandatory tests when needed and again launch large-scale community testing.
“With the cooperation of the people, we hope it can achieve the goal of zero cases so the cross-border flow of people can resume as soon as possible.”
In response to his letter, Lam’s office recapped the achievements in the acquisition of Covid-19 vaccines, maintained that testing measures needed to be strategic and that the government would continue to encourage the public to download the app.
In the reply, dated December 16, Lam’s private secretary Maggie Wong Siu-chu said the government would spare no effort in combating the pandemic and thanked the coalition for its suggestions, which had been relayed to the Food and Health Bureau for reference.
Wong cited Lam’s announcement on December 11 that the authorities had signed purchase agreements with vaccine manufacturers and that the first batch of one million shots, from Sinovac Biotech, would arrive next month. And the aim was to get a majority of the population vaccinated in 2021.
But the government in effect rejected the coalition’s suggestion of another community-wide testing scheme. Wong said the government was of the view that a “strategic, targeted testing scheme is more suitable for Hong Kong society and the current epidemic situation”.
The Shenzhen meeting took place as the city saw a small ray of hope among the fourth wave of infections, recording its lowest number of new cases in a month, a day after the government announced an unprecedented ban on all passenger flights from Britain in a bid to shut out a more infectious coronavirus strain, described as “out of control”.
The latest caseload, the lowest since November 21, included 53 locally transmitted infections, of which 13 were untraceable. The remaining 10 were imported.
More than 30 preliminary-positive cases were recorded.
The tally of confirmed infections stands at 8,300. The city also recorded its 132nd coronavirus-related death, an 86-year-old chronically ill patient.
“The number of confirmed cases today is slightly lower than previous days so I hope this trend can continue so we can actually see a downward trend … I am tentatively optimistic,” said Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Centre for Health Protection’s communicable disease branch.
Hong Kong officials and experts were briefed in Shenzhen on the mainland’s strategies and measures for fighting Covid-19 and given an assessment of the current situation.
Led by Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-cheung, the delegation met Lei Haichao, vice-minister of the National Health Commission, and Huang Liuquan, deputy director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. Qiu Hong, deputy director of the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, also attended.
Sources said that while the meeting had been initiated by Beijing, and touched on compulsory screenings, Hong Kong officials reiterated their position that a citywide scheme was unfeasible.
In a statement, a government spokesman said experts from both sides exchanged views on various measures, including preventing the importation of cases, virus testing and the usage and management of health codes.
“The experts shared their views on the analysis and assessment of the current development of the pandemic around the world and on the, as well as the strategies, policies and measures for fighting the epidemic,” the statement said.
While it said the meeting would be useful to Hong Kong in implementing its strategy in preventing and fighting the virus, it did not detail the discussions.
Secretary for Food and Health Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee, civil service chief Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, mainland affairs minister Erick Tsang Kwok-wai, Secretary for Innovation and Technology Alfred Sit Wing-hang and Chief Executive’s Office director Eric Chan Kwok-ki were in the group.
Three of the government’s top advisers on the pandemic – professors Gabriel Leung and Yuen Kwok-yung from the University of Hong Kong, and Professor David Hui Shu-cheong of Chinese University – also joined.
Lam and her public health advisers have repeatedly rejected calls from the pro-establishment camp and the local business sector to adopt a mandatory screening programme for the city’s 7.5 million population.
Hong Kong’s first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, is among those who have urged the government to move forward with mandatory testing, while Lam’s predecessor, Leung Chun-ying, suggested compulsory screenings were a “do or die” matter for the city.
An alliance of small and medium-sized business groups recently ran a full-page newspaper advertisement, saying members were angry about the repeated waves of infections. “We just want to survive with our employees … The government must adopt citywide screenings,” it said.
Infectious disease specialist Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan said a mandatory mass testing programme would require much more manpower than for the two-week voluntary scheme carried out in September.
“Treating hundreds of Covid-19 patients each day and sending their close contacts to quarantine centres is already taking up much of the city’s resources,” he said.
“Even contact tracing is not being done quickly enough, so who can help coordinate and carry out the programme? It is impossible in this situation, especially in the short term.”
Tsang also said it was too early to tell if the fourth wave was easing after the drop in daily cases.
“We need to observe the trend and not just the number of cases over one or two days,” he said. “I’m worried about social gatherings over the festive period and the backlog of cases over the holidays.”
Meanwhile, health authorities will issue a mandatory testing order at Ping Shing House in Lam Tin’s Ping Tin Estate if two residents who tested preliminary-positive are confirmed as infected, taking the number of flats affected there to five.
Specimen bottles will be distributed at Lotus Tower, Kwun Tong Garden Estate and Yun Mei House in Yau Tong’s Yau Mei Court after residents in three different flats contracted the virus.
A private doctor, Wu Xiaochun, who runs a clinic at Grandeur Terrace Shopping Centre in Tin Shui Wai, was also confirmed as infected after treating two Covid-19 patients last week.
He last worked on Monday, and his colleagues were sent to a quarantine centre. Health authorities also urged patients who recently visited the clinic to get tested.
Chuang, of the Centre for Health Protection, admitted there had been a delay in sending close contacts to quarantine centres when asked why pro-establishment activist Leticia Lee See-yin’s husband had only been sent to quarantine 3½ days after she had died from the coronavirus.
“I understand he was sent to quarantine as soon as possible after the backlog was cleared,” she said.
Dr Lau Ka-hin, the Hospital Authority’s chief manager for quality and standards, said the couple had earlier tested negative for the virus, but a text message sent by the contractor running the tests failed to reach them. Lau said authorities were still investigating the reason and he was unsure how many other people were affected.
The government also debunked rumours circulating via social media that it planned to ban people from leaving or entering Hong Kong, bar all dine-in services and order supermarkets and malls to close early, among other measures. A spokesman said the rumours were completely unfounded and fabricated.
A pet Pomeranian also tested positive for Covid-19. The dog’s owner – who was a close contact of a patient – lives in Sham Tseng and was quarantined last week.
Separately, the Hong Kong Tourism Board will organise its first-ever online countdown on New Year’s Eve, with the annual fireworks display cancelled because of the latest wave of coronavirus infections.
Once the clock strikes midnight, a two-minute video featuring views of Victoria Harbour and the city’s landmarks will follow, along with festive greetings ushering in the new year.
Additional reporting by Rachel Yeo
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